Primary Source is Actually Pretty Great

Category : Education, Rationality · by Sep 8th, 2015

I’ve been wondering about why I had such a great time reading Daniel Kahneman and Scott Alexander (of Star Slate Codex), and in the process I stumbled upon some important academic truths.

In many questions of more-than-trivial complexity, the closest we are going to get to actual answers is through scientific inquiry [1]. For this reason, in informed discussions, we have a license to reference these academic findings as if they were truths. In this way, while academic work don’t directly answer some of the most complex and important questions in life, they take us much closer.

But all those discussions are based on the assumption that academic work is conducted in good faith – i.e. the numbers are correct and faithfully represented, the conclusions are reasonable and substantiated, etc. A good analogy for the value of academic work is the U.S. dollar, as both are based on good faith. As the USD would be worthless without the backing of the government, research would be useless without the assumption of academic honesty (and this honesty is somewhat reasonably connected to faith in the research institution).

The insistence of relying on primary source exist for the same reason. With each quotation, some information is inevitably lost. Worse, as most work attempt to make a point, the results may be misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued. The outcome of using information distant from primary source is largely the same as using bad research: your points will be inaccurate. While the chain of references used in academic may still cause some deviations from initial references, the decay of quality is much slower that way.

One of the reasons I like Daniel Kahneman and Scott Alexander is that they present surprisingly useful conclusions but are able to back their conclusions with research. This is worlds apart from the status quo psychology and self-help books in terms of reliability.

I remember being drilled on the importance of primary source in seventh grade, then at least two or three times more in the course of my K-12. The claims never appeared to be backed up, and I soon began to see the practice as some of formality. But now I my views have come around.

I still wonder though, did the teachers or the educators know? Four years of college education certainly taught me little on the subject. Concerning how the importance of these concepts hinge on persuasiveness, the failure of the concepts to latch on to students is ironic.

[1] This article deals with research, but first-hand interviews follow’s the same logic.


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